The release of a New Zealand government cabinet paper and cabinet minute concerning proposed exhaust emission standards for imported used vehicles has prompted a derisory response from the Motor Industry Association which represents new vehicle importers.

The government proposals recommend local enforcement of Japanese emission standards applying to used imported vehicles at the time that they were manufactured - over 10 years ago in the case of most imported 4WDs (SUVs), and over eight years ago for the average used car coming across the wharf.

"This is nothing but a crock of platitudes written around a political agenda to protect a section of the motor industry that continues to flood our roads with old junk," said MIA chief executive officer Perry Kerr.

"The paper is full of touchy-feely comments regarding the importance of not upsetting the used importers, and completely fails to address the fact that New Zealand is now regarded internationally as a pariah on vehicle emissions matters."

According to the MIA, this is far too little, far too late.

"Even for such a useless and outdated set of rules, the fact that we won't see enforcement until 2008 or 2009 will guarantee that it will be even more meaningless," said Kerr, "and the fact that increasingly older used imports are protected by their original build date avoids any serious attempt to clean up the appalling exhaust pollution situation which exists in New Zealand."

Kerr also questioned the effectiveness of emissions systems on such old vehicles.

"Without in-service testing, how can we be sure that the emission control systems of 10-year-old vehicles with well over six figures on the odometer and an uncertain maintenance history are still working properly?

"Although the used import industry is facing the stark reality that it's in terminal decline, we seem to have a government agenda which wants to keep protecting it from the environmental realities that the rest of the world has to face," Kerr said.

"The government seems frightened to do anything that will affect the used import trade, despite compelling evidence that the older and older vehicles that continue to pour into this country are doing enormous damage to our air quality and also creating a major disposal problem."

The issue of free trade is often brought up in defence of unrestricted imports of used cars.

"This doesn't seem to be an issue for other countries which support free trade," said Kerr. "Bans or heavy tariffs on used vehicle imports are standard practice in other OECD countries wishing to protect their environment - our officials seem blind to the fact that we're the only country in the world in which market forces are the only influence on the importation of used junk.

"In fact our system encourages the importation of old diesel vehicles which have been banished from the streets of Tokyo because of their excessive exhaust pollution."

It's been estimated that about 400 people a year are dying in New Zealand of respiratory diseases caused by vehicle emissions, the MIA said.

"Are the lives of these people less important than the potential votes of the tens of thousands who are driving the vehicles that cause the pollution?" the organisation asked.

"Our officials seem compelled to follow a course of inaction, motivated by the severe criticism that the government would receive from the used import industry if anything was done to restrict its activities," said Kerr.

"This kind of backside-protecting is not a good enough reason to leave us in the third world regarding exhaust emissions and vehicle safety. Although officials readily admit that newer vehicles are far cleaner and safer, it's time that they got their heads around making the simple decisions that would deliver that reality to New Zealand," he concluded.